NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Bridgeable Shores: Selected Poems (1969-2001) by Luis Cabalquinto
(Galatea Speaks – an imprint of Muae Publishing / Kaya Press, New York, 2001)
Born in the Philippines, Luis Cabalquinto first came to the United States in 1968. He studied writing at Cornell University, the New York School, and New York University. He writes in English and two Filipino languages. He is the author of three poetry collections published in the Philippines and his work has been published widely in anthologies and journals in the United States. He has been the recipient of a number of awards including a poetry prize from the Academy of American Poets and the New School’s Dylan Thomas Poetry Award. He lives in New York and the Philippines.
Written over a period of 32 years, (1969-2001), the 81 poems in this volume provide the reader with a generous range of subject matter drawn from everyday life. Living on two continents, it is the Cathay Pacific Airlines and Cabalquinto himself who give us the hypothetcial bridge that spans these shores. He seems to be equally at home whether he is in Manhattan or Maragao or travelling from New York City to Manila (via Vancouver and Hong Kong) on FLT 899/907 at 35,000 feet.
The book is divided into four sections: Morningland – which contains poems about rural life in the Philippines, Sun-On-Ice – which contains poems set in New York, Break into Blossom – which consists of a series of poems that are mainly of a sexual nature and Outer Reaches where the poems range further afield to places such as Paris, Las Vegas, Milan and Bosnia.
All the poems are very accessible and, for the most part, couched in simple language which Cabalquinto uses to good effect as a means to engage the reader. He likes being a communicator, no matter how complicated the subject matter.
A quick look at the Table of Contents shows that Cabalquinto has a flare for unusual titles. Titles are important because they not only give us an inkling as to what the poem is going to be about but also draw us in – they are the first words we read and they have to be strong enough to make us want to read the poem. Here are some examples:
In Midwinter an Odd Thing can Happen Halfway through a McDonald Sandwich
The Night Bobby De Niro Went Down on His Knees and Blew Air into My Bellybutton
Hitting the Bottle with Phil Who Has a Train to Catch.
Who can resist when being confronted with titles like these? We want to know what happens when you or anyone else eats a McDonald sandwich, what it feels like when Bobby De Niro goes down on his knees, why Phil has to catch a train...and so we read on.
Photography is one of the themes that recurs throughout this selection. This is sometimes apparent in the titles (Close-Ups; Exposed Negatives; The View from Mt. Mayon) and at other times in the content of the poem itself, as in The Sea Child. The poems set in the Philippines are presented as if we are looking at old photographs, studying the detail of the landscape in the frame. It might be a night in Magarao, a landscape of wild swamp grass where the camera zooms in on
a blue bug
Skating slowly with fine legs
On the paddy water
or a picture of a young woman swimming in a morning full of riverlight.
For the most part these are recollections of quiet contemplation that play on the theme of that yearning to go back in time to one’s childhood. Not all these poems are salt and light though. There is the dark undertow of The Dog-Eater:
It was the piss on the snow
On a sidewalk in New York
That brought up the thought of a moon
In his childhood: in a cloudless sky
A clean sphere like a huge new lamp
Under which, for the first time, the boy saw the dog-eater.
The image with which the poem opens is one of many bridgeable images that bring together a memory of a life lived on two continents.
For me, one of the most powerful poems in the book was the one entitled They Move With The Casualness Of Eels. Like many of Cabalquinto’s poems, it is a night piece and it is set by the sea. In this case, it is one a.m. and seven young men have gathered together after an evening serenade. That rather elegant phrase soon seems out of place by the time we reach the end of the poem where a sense of foreboding has built up to fever pitch in the final two lines:
Artemio plays his guitar and Leandro sings:
He has the voice of a trapped animal.
The poem is accessible but there is also a part of it that is beautifully elusive and therein lies its power. Cabalquinto sets our imagination to work in a masterful way.
Young Rebels is a hard-hitting poem where, in times of national upheaval, young men are forced to make difficult decisions:
Now, for them, there are just two exits:
Not to be a killer is to be killed. They choose to kill.
Cabalquinto does not flinch from writing about brutality. Again, the simplest of language is used to convey the horrific torture of a dissident in Edge of the Woods. It is deliberately sickening in its graphic detail.
The subject of weaponry is given an unusual slant in Body Search and made more palatable as a result with a move towards a greater emphasis on the human body at the close:
all the recent and
thorough head scans revealed nothing unusual.
Cabaquinto’s poems on love and sex are delicately phrased. He skates round the topic as if he is trying to avoid treading on eggshells by thinly disguising the subject matter. Seen in this light, they are humorous and diverting. Sex is fun as well as being just one of many aspects of love. Cabalquinto seems to be saying that you can either write about it in a romantic vein, or you can skirt round the topic by writing about it in a light-hearted vein. In The Pornographer Labours on His Lead he makes it clear that he rejects the notion of writing about it in a crude vein. After giving us a brief extract penned by the pornographer, the poem concludes:
He did not like the passage. He would work
on it some more, though it was late. he rose
and went to the fridge, reached for a Bud.
Outside, a wondrous dawn.
Someone’s small dog, barking.
The last two lines are like a breath of fresh air. They remind us that there is so much more to take delight in when we look at the wider world.
Cabalquinto celebrates the ordinary things in life. His Still Life is not composed of flowers and fruit, subjects so favoured by some of the Dutch Masters, but objects on a kitchen table. In Waiting to Cash a Cheque for $40.95 a typical scene is brought to life by a child who voices with such innocence what the grown-ups have learnt through discipline to keep to themselves.
Throughout the selection, various poems are addressed to, or are about, other artists and poets. These include the Filipino poet Emannuel Lacaba (who at the age of 27 was killed by a military patrol); José Garcia Villa and V.C. Igarta whose Lady from Oceania, photographed by Archie Reyes, adorns the front cover.
Several poems are written in the form of a haiku – in this case, Cabalquinto favours the 5-7-5 syllable form. These consist of short sequences with an overarching title. The sequence called Bliss comes at the end of the collection. Here are two haiku (nos. 4 and 6) from that sequence:
Phone ringing all day.
In-between, reading a book
Of poems by Basho.
A cat on my chest,
A book of old Zen poems,
The sound of two breaths.
An informative introduction by Eileen Tabios sets the scene for this volume which must surely rank as a welcome addition to the field of Asian-American literature.
Neil Leadbeater is an editor, author, essayist and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014).